The Floating World

An analogy to the courtly romances of Medieval Europe can be found in Japanese kabuki theater. Kabuki plays were idealized myths and legends that aggrandized the Japanese nobility while also imparting moral lessons about personal conduct and proper behavior. Just as men of the Europe’s barony class would read stories of courtly romance to learn about chivalry, the Japanese Samurai read poems and watched plays that demonstrated the tenets of bushido. And much like Don Quixote, sitting in his manor reading stories about knights and using these fictions to reconstruct is now obsolete position in society as a knight himself, the Japanese samurai of the Edo period expended their ample leisure time consuming cultural artifacts which confirmed their position and status in feudal Japan in the absence of any operative role.

The samurai class emerged from the Sengoku period of Japanese history when, very similar to Europe’s Dark Age, a long, incessant string of civil wars were fought over matters of succession. The warrior classes played a central role in the fate of Japan during this time. The samurai won power and wealth from fighting in battles and collecting spoils. When the Sengoku period came to an end and Japan was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate, there were no longer wars for the samurai to fight. Unlike the European nobility, who held title over the land and could sustain themselves the surplus produced by an agrarian peasantry, Japanese nobility were forbidden from working the land or having any hand in the production of wealth. They received a very modest stipend from the shogun and were expected to reside in the city maintaining the bushido code of frugality, loyalty, martial prowess and honor. Samurai who had connections in Edo took jobs as bureaucrats in the shogunate government and remained rich men. The rest were reduced to lives of poverty and desperation. Some became Ronin, itinerant warriors seeking the support of a daimyo. Some became gangsters and thieves. Most, however, frittered away their lives in the brothels and playhouses of Yoshiwara, Edo’s pleasure district. An entire culture of purposelessness and resignation arose around the samurai in Edo. It was given a name: ukiyo, the floating world. To live in the floating world meant living only for the moment, taking solace in fleeting pleasures and allowing one’s self to drift from one day to the next. It was a life without consequence, trivial to the extreme, but also a life of relative ease. With no future, the samurai submersed themselves in stories from the past, attaching themselves to a tradition of heroism but abstaining completely from action and duty.

The samurai languished in the floating world for more than three centuries. In 1868, the Meiji restoration took place, conferring complete power into the hands of the emperor and essentially leading to the capitulation of the shogunate. In 1877 the Meiji restoration official disbanded the samurai and dissolved their privileged status, thus allowing them to enter the ranks of productive society as government officials and businessmen.


Leadership of the noble classes remained viable throughout the middle ages. To a great degree, this is what accounted for the cultural stagnancy that we associate with the dark ages. Power and wealth was concentrated in the country manors rather than in the cities. North of the Alps, Europe had no proper capitals. Life was highly localized. Very little commerce took place between towns. People remained in their villages, farmed the land around them and abided by the rule of their local lord. Learning was sequestered to the monasteries. Commerce became the domain of the ostracized classes. Very gradually, over the course of 3 or 4 centuries, the supremacy and sovereignty of the nobles began to wane. Strong monarchs emerged in France, England, Spain, Portugal, and Sweden. In seafaring countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy a rich urban elite took form. The power of the rural gentry was rivaled and in many cases made subordinate to law and money. Power from prestige and tradition began to count less than that which was derived from economic utility. Auerbach’s reads Don Quixote as a demonstration of this phenomenon, which had occurred during the late middle ages almost imperceptibly. His interpretation of the Quixote character is fascinating. He analyses his social position and actually finds famously deluded sense of the world as perfectly reasonable given his rank and role in medieval society:

“By his detailed description of the circumstances of his hero’s life, Cervantes makes it perfectly clear, at the very beginning of his book, where the root of Don Quixote’s confusion lies: he is the victim of a social order in which he belongs to a class that has no function. He belongs to this class; he cannot emancipate himself from it; but as a mere member of it, without wealth and without high connections, he has no role and no mission. He feels his life running meaninglessly out, as though he were paralyzed. Only upon such a man, whose life is hardly better than a peasant’s but who is educated and who is neither able nor permitted to labor as a peasant does, could romances of chivalry have such an unbalancing effect. His setting forth is a flight from a situation which is unbearable and which he has borne far too long.” (Mimesis, 137)

Given his position as a minor hidalgo, Quixote’s duties and office had become obsolete, supplanted by the government of the absolutist king. Three or four generations before him, his ancestors might have played a vital part in the destiny of Spain. They might have taken part in the reconquista, or they might have been charged with keeping order in the newly formed Spanish duchies while the king was away fighting in the crusades. By the start of the siglo de oro, the king’s rule was uncontested and peace reigned. The need for knights had vanished, though the people who occupied those positions lingered in their decrepit with nothing do. People today read Don Quixote and they see a man with pretentions to something greater than what he is. Quixote is a knight; he can claim that title as a birthright. The comic tension of the story, of course, is that by the 16th century, what it meant to be a knight in imperial Spain meant something far different than what it was originally intended to be. That someone would go about behaving the traditional way that a knight would behave in that time and place was cause for laughter. But Cervantes goes further than simple comedy and questions whether knighthood and nobility ever meant what it was supposed to be. Perhaps knighthood was always only performance of a role rather than a real office with duties and responsibilities. If this were true, than it brings us to the final question: is acting the part of knight equivalent on some level to being a knight, does one occupy the role simply by enacting it?

Basis for Aristocratic Entitlement

It is counterintuitive to consider, but the entrenchment of feudalism during the 9th and 10th centuries AD as the dominant and enduring social order in Europe might have actually signaled the conclusion of knighthood’s practical relevance in society. After the fall of Rome, the device of nobility was introduced by the Germanic tribal leaders as a means of stabilizing military allegiance, and later, under the Carolingians, a system for delegating governmental power. Title was awarded to those who kept the peace and assisted with the leadership of the empire. Once the Frankish throne had dissolved, there was no longer any central authority to validate noble title and to employ individuals to military and administrative office. Nonetheless, the noblemen retained their titles as emblems of prestige. Just as the 5th century Frankish chieftains derived legitimacy and license to rule from their foederati pacts with Rome long after the empire’s collapse, the medieval lords continued using their titles to assert their proprietary rights over the land. But beyond justification for one’s privilege, noble title ceased to fulfill any practical purpose. Title became strictly ceremonial. It ceased to be a position within the apparatus of power—due to the fact that that apparatus had gone defunct—and persisted instead as a social role, a pattern of behaviors and relationships that denoted power, and by denoting power also substantiated it. Auerbach, in his chapter on the courtly romance, explains the growing irrelevance of nobility and how this contrasted paradoxically with its enduring centrality in the European social life:

“The ethics of feudalism, the ideal conception of the perfect knight, thus attained a very considerable and very long-lived influence. Concepts associated with it—courage, honor, loyalty, mutual respect, refined manners, service to women—continued to cast their spell on the contemporaries of completely changed cultural periods. Social strata of later urban and bourgeois provenance adopted this ideal, although it is not only class-conditioned and exclusive but also completely devoid of reality. As soon as it transcends the sphere of mere conventions of intercourse and has to do with the practical business of the world, it proves inadequate and needs to be supplemented, often in a manner most unpleasantly in contrast to it. But precisely because it is so removed from reality, it could—as and ideal—adapt itself to any and every situation, at least as long as there were ruling classes at all.” (Mimesis, 137)

Auerbach implies here that nobility remains a potent force in Europe precisely because it became divorced from its operative meaning and was re-established as a signifier of importance and proper conduct. So, though a count may no longer carry out a ministerial roles in the county of a kingdom, he is still viewed as a figure of authority in his particular precinct and is treated deferentially. A marquis may no longer govern the eastern march, but it is agreed by all that he and his progeny should be allowed to sit in court and that he is entitled to favors from the king. The code of chivalrous conduct was adopted by the European aristocracy to moderate power and aggression between military adversaries, but it also provides a protocol of behavior and ethics that distinguishes the noble classes from the common folk. In modern life we rely on laws to secure our rights to property and liberty; but rule of law was faint and only intermittent in medieval Europe. State power was not uniformly obeyed under the Ancien Régime. Only rule of god was respected, which was made manifest by hereditary history and fortune.

Code of Chivalry

Had the empire of Charlemagne endured; had the rules of succession been codified and dynastic power established, it might have resulted in a rebirth of civilization. Europe might have escaped its dark age and the Fall of Rome would have been viewed by history simply as a transition from Paganism to Christianity rather than the termination of an era. Europe responded to the collapse of the Frankish throne in 843 much the same way it did to the withdrawal of Roman rule 400 years earlier. Rule became localized. Lords exercised sovereignty over their individual fiefs and fought private wars with one another for additional territory. The church once again attempted to maintain order among the nobility—with mixed results—through adjudication and moral proselytizing. Knights, who had previously been regulated through their alliances to their lords and subordination to the throne, now acted independently and fought mostly to suit their own interests. They went around extorting the peasantry and robbing towns. Without a royal standard to march under the warrior class in Europe was directionless. It was around this time that knights began to adopt the chivalric code. Chivalry was devised as a remedy to the noble caste’s degeneration into a class of thieves and cutthroats. The chivalrous knight swore loyalty to all nobles of greater rank than he, not just his own lord. He vowed to protect the weak and to uphold the peace. He dedicate himself to living a virtuous life above all other pursuits. The tradition of martial discipline promulgated by an organized military system was no longer available to knights and other soldiers of this time. Instead, they submitted themselves to a strict program of self-discipline. With this cultural shift, knights were supposedly made docile. They became gentlemen.

It is an interesting trait of the European aristocracy: the entire edifice of manners, of refinement, of respectability, all of the behavioral attributes that we come to identify with “good breeding” developed out of a need to suppress antagonism between the powerful, so that they would not tear society to pieces fighting one another. And the greater their power grew the more exaggerated became their expressions of composure and self-control; while all the time, lurking beneath that veneer of restraint was the same anarchic potential, never fully resolved from the dark ages.

Efficacy of Monarchy

I once had a Greek professor who insisted that the very best form of government was monarchy. We were discussing the Greek tyranny and how the hoi polli tended to favor the king in political matters rather than the oligarchy which was constantly wrestling with the king for supremacy. My professor pointed to the fact that society is more just under a strong central power like a monarch because, though people still remain divided by class, all citizens are basically equal under the law since they are all subjects of the king. There is less favoritism under monarchs, greater stability. One’s role in the society is foregone and protected. Oligarchic rule is usually disadvantageous for common people, he said, because law is enforced capriciously and leadership is constantly disputed. Without a king to serve, oligarchs are free to pursue their own interests exclusively. To thrive in an oligarchy one must split his loyalties between competing magnates and hope he carries the favor of the right one at the right time. Rule is constantly exchanged between victors and the vanquished. Interestingly, my professor characterized the democratic republic in the United States as an oligarchy. His reasoning being, I suppose, that one can buy influence in government with money and clout. So called democratic pluralism, as practiced today, is just another manifestation of oligarchic interests competing for dominance. The argument has some merit, but it fails to take into account that rule of law is still quite potent in the United States. The superiority of the judiciary and its relative independence from the other branches of government are vestiges in the Anglo-American legal system of regal authority and, ostensibly, countermeasures against oligarchy.

There is only one draw back to monarchy, according to my professor. He asked if we knew what it was. I guessed it was that the state is entirely dependant on the talent and leadership of a single individual, or the lack there of. He said this was true, but only insomuch as the monarch needed to be considered formidable enough to rebuff challenges to his authority. With social order, it matters less what the central authority does with its power and more that it is obeyed by others in the society and deferred to. A rogue king will always harm the commonwealth less than a civil war fought on behalf of competing oligarchs. The real problem of monarchy, he said, is that transition of power from one regime to the next had to be determined by lineage and inheritance. Every time a king dies the government must be rebuilt from the ground up for a new monarch. This is the case even when rules of dynastic inheritance are firmly in place and respected. And during the period of interregnum, the governments power is always vulnerable. Claims to the throne can be numerous and matters of succession often resolved through warfare.

The final ingredient of European feudalism and the precipitating event that resulted in oligarchic rule by the nobility for almost a half a millennium to come was the weakening and eventual dissolution of the Frankish crown. The Carolinian Empire collapsed just three generations after Charlemagne, and similar to the Merovingian kings before them, their fall was brought about by ineffectual leadership and disputes over succession. When Charlemagne died, he divided his realms between his sons, who then further subdivided their lands between their sons. Technically, rule was supposed to be shared between the brothers jointly, but after Charlemagne’s death, they almost immediately began fighting to take territory from one another. The Frankish custom of dividing inheritance between siblings insured that state power would always dissipate between generations and rulers would always have an impetus to betray one another to satisfy their ambitions. And as the empire’s strength steadily declined, threats from outside the kingdom became more menacing. The 9th and 10th centuries CE saw the beginning of the great Viking raids. What the Franks called the Great Heathen Army pillaged the coastal regions of the northern empire. They conquered the Low Lands and Normandy and settled them for their own. When the Viking king Sigfred sailed up the Seine and seized Paris and Charles the Fat’s only riposte was to pay them silver to leave, the Emperor of the Romans was deemed unfit to defend the realm and was forced to capitulate. After that the duchies exercised complete autonomy. The era of European feudalism was inaugurated.